Saharan dust a storm killer

by Mary Caperton Morton
Friday, October 12, 2018

NASA satellite imagery shows Saharan dust crossing the Atlantic Ocean into the Gulf of Mexico, where the dust may suppress developing storm systems. Credit: NASA/Texas A&M University.

Each year between 900 million and 4 billion metric tons of dust from the Sahara Desert in Africa is swept into the atmosphere and blown around the world. In places like Texas, the dust often leads to poor air quality. A new study suggests that desert dust may also suppress the formation of severe storms and hurricanes in the southern United States.

Bowen Pan, a graduate student at Texas A&M University, and colleagues used atmospheric computer models to study how Saharan dust moving across the Gulf of Mexico into southern Texas might affect storms generated in the Gulf. They reported in the Journal of Climate that dust-laden air creates temperature inversions that tend to prevent cloud and storm formation while also reducing the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface.

“If we have more frequent and severe dust storms, it’s likely that we will have cooler sea-surface temperatures and land-surface temperatures,” Pan said in a statement. The colder surface temperatures in turn provide less kinetic energy to fuel the storm systems, dampening their severity.

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